271: JESUS’S REAL POLITICAL MESSAGE

As with most topics I write about in the Zingcreed blog, very little is original. I collect ideas and anecdotes and jokes  like  squirrels collect nuts, and I republish them in various combinations as I see fit. Thank you WordPress!
As far as political theology is concerned I have always found Latin American Liberation Theology to be a rich seam to mine. Scandalously ignored by the churches today it nevertheless shines a bright light on our 21st century problems. After all, poverty injustice and inequality haven’t exactly disappeared since the 1970s when the first Lib. Theol. books appeared! And some Christians and others are still fighting these ‘institutional sins’ (defined in another Post listed below).

I have found Amazon to be a good source for all the 40 year old L.T. classics in english translation.

I was very impressed by the work of Segundo Galilea (1928-2010) when I came across it recently. (Translated, his name means ‘Second Galilee’.) He is, or at least was, a Chilean Roman Catholic priest working in Santiago. He later went on to work in other countries including the US and Cuba. He approaches the subject of the church’s involvement in politics from the gospel, i.e. from the attitude of Jesus himself toward the political contingencies of his time. He starts by outlining 2 very different incomplete interpretations of this that he has found in Latin America:

(1) The ‘native Christ’ (his term – I would prefer ‘conservative’ or ‘non-political’ Christ myself) who

  • moves outside the ambit of the socio-political problems of  his time
  • is exclusively religious in all he says and does
  • dissociates himself from political authorities and their conflicts
  • lives a life, and dies a death, outside the political and historical framework of his time

and (2) The ‘revolutionary Christ’ who

  • was basically a political revolutionary
  • put the defense of justice and of the poor at the centre of his preaching
  • stood up to the established systems, Roman and Jewish, and collided with them
  • as a result of this confrontation died a revolutionary martyr, dying for the cause of the oppressed

Galilea’s own context is highly relevant here: he is writing in Chile in 1977 or earlier. In 1971 a group of R.C. priests in Santiago issued the Declaration of the Eighty, which I aim to reprint on Zingcreed soon. It was a rather clichéd rallying call for socialism, couched in marxist language with a few references to Christ thrown in for good measure. By 1972 the Christians for Socialism Movement was actively ‘mobilising the masses’ in low income areas of the capital. (See Post listed below). From 1970 to 1973 Chile was ruled by Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity party, one of the few marxist parties in world history ever to be elected by a majority of the population. It was overthrown by a US backed military coup. Of course. What else do you expect to happen?. So ‘revolutionary Christianity’ wasn’t a mere pipe dream for Galilea and his fellow priests; for many in the church it was a question of making political decisions that had  – potentially – life or death consequences.

From this ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’  Galilea tries to have his cake and eat it. He attempts to construct a ‘synthesis’ of 5 working hypotheses, (which he calls Theses 1-5.) I shall attempt to summarize them.

Thesis 1: Jesus grew up in Israel, which, like everywhere else, had its own power conflicts. His trial and death were political events.

  • He was a Jew, subject to the Jewish Law as well as to the Roman colonisers of first century Palestine where he lived
  • He shared the aspirations of his fellow Jews for liberation from the Roman yoke
  • Like his fellow Jews he was subject to the pressure of the situations created by the political factions of the time, from the Herodians to the Zealots (revolutionary nationalists who would probably be classified as fascists today)
  • Like his fellow Jews he had to take a position vis-à-vis the established Roman power and vis-à-vis the abusive religious system of the priests and Pharisees

His trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate  took the traditional form  of the suppression of a subversive:
“We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a king…He is inflaming the people.” (Lk 23:2,5)
“Anyone who makes himself king is defying Caesar.” (John 19:12)

All this clearly shows that Jesus’s behaviour and preaching impinged upon the political questions of his time, and brought him into conflict with the civil as well as the religious authorities:
“Then the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting. ‘Here is this man working all these signs,’ they said, ‘and what action are we taking? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy the  Holy Place and our nation.’ “ (Jn 11:47-49)

Thus Jesus’s death was a political event, with religious and political causes typical for a colony. In Galilea’s words “It was a death brought about by religious authorities who were taking care to be on good terms with the Romans. To the extent that Jesus questioned the established religion, he also questioned its social power…”

Thesis 2: Jesus didn’t act or talk like a political leader, let alone a revolutionary one

  • He was a religious leader who preached something he called the ‘kingdom of God’
  • His message contained neither a programme nor a strategy for political liberation
  • There were no elements of strategy or activity vis-à-vis Roman imperialism
  • He did not join any of the political groupings of his time, certainly not the Zealots
  • Following his guidance, his disciples, after his death, acted as a religious group or church
  • His pastoral proclamations revealed the true calling and destiny of human beings; their liberation from sin and from all evil, and the promise of a new society
  • The Sermon on the Mount provided a set of values

Thesis 3: Nevertheless, in his religious and pastoral message, Jesus generated a dynamism of socio-political change, for his time and for the future.

  • The Christian message calls for the conversion of individuals and society
  • It is critical of all societies and every form of politics. It goes beyond  mere non-conformity to call for serious resistance to the status quo, and the questioning of all political systems no matter what they may be called
  • Jesus’s message is revolutionary, as it proclaims the values of justice and freedom that are at the basis of all movements, old and new, for freedom from slavery and colonialism,  as well as  movements for human rights and equality. What started as merely ‘religious’ values can act as a leaven in society and bring about radical change. The political implications are clearly there for those who have eyes to see them
  • Consequently, Christ’s message, though not political per se,  helped to generate movements (and conflicts) of political liberation
  • This Christian social critique implies the removal of everything in society that (I quote) “assaults the nature and destiny of the human being as revealed at the heart of the gospel.”

Thesis 4: The  ethical values which Jesus preached in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount resonated with his contemporaries and had political knock-on effects

for example:-

  • The (Roman) emperor has no clothes on! (My words, not S.G.’s).
    In the proclamation of the one true God and Jesus Christ, God’s messenger, all idolatry is brought to an end. Jesus relativizes, puts in their place, the values and persons that in his time take the place of that God. Among these are the Emperor and his authority – the cornerstone of the mythic might that holds the Roman empire together. Jesus destroys the ideological bases of its totalitarianism. In a parallel movement he gives every human being  a sense of freedom and equality vis-à-vis the lords of power whom he places in dependence on the power of God. (Jn 19:11-34)
    Thus, Roman authoritarianism is undermined not by a frontal assault, via the political route, but via the proclamation of the truth about God and humankind. Socially and politically this is highly subversive. “Jesus goes beyond the ambitions of the Zealots, by destroying the very foundations of the imperial system.”
  • Jesus frightens the authorities by mobilizing the marginalized.
    He calls the poor to make up his kingdom. By prioritizing them he gives them a sense of their own dignity. It had the effect of lending a sense of mystique and a social power to a group hitherto marginalized and without political significance. By thus galvanising the oppressed who were desirous of reestablishing justice “this new force was to be decisive in the enfeeblement and eventual collapse of the empire, and this call issued to the poor of the kingdom would be at the root of all authentic revolutions…”
  • It’s not just for the Jews – the kingdom is for all people everywhere!
    Jesus proclaimed a universal kingdom. He sent his disciples forth to preach all over the Middle East, in gentile as well as Jewish areas. He thus undermined the tribalistic, nationalistic and sectarian religion that existed in Jerusalem. His criticisms struck at the very roots of the Jewish religious hierarchy. It was the beginning of the end of the political power of the Sanhedrin. By proclaiming an ethic based not on the legalism of the Torah but on love and an imitation of the Father, Jesus is actually precipitating the collapse of established religion in Israel.
  • New values, new vision
    But Jesus doesn’t dismiss Israel, he renews Israel’s prophetic and moral consciousness. He reissues its call to equality, to a community of brothers and sisters.
    He preaches to his disciples a new orientation, a new vision of humankind, new values – values that contrast with the society of his time and with the values promoted by political power; for he preaches love of neighbour, poverty, humility, detachment from prestige and power, forgiveness and the like.
    He preaches freedom and love as the human vocation
    . To the extent that these values penetrate the hearts of men and women in society, they pass a death sentence on every socio-political structure at variance with them, beginning with the Roman empire!

Thesis 5: Jesus renounced both political power for himself as well as  every form of violence

  • The temptation of political power beckoned to Jesus when in the wilderness on his forty day fast (Mt 4:8-9)
  • The crowds similarly put pressure on him (Jn 6:15)
  • But he de-mythologized  all ideologies and systems of domination
  • and called the powerless poor and the ‘little ones’ to occupy the privileged places  in his kingdom, as mentioned above
  • His powerlessness “is full of historic, transforming fecundity”
  • Jesus made the free decision to render himself helpless in the face of violence
  • In fact his central commandment of love excludes as a matter of principle all use of violence against another human being. (Lk 6:35; 11:4)
  • Jesus practiced what he preached (Jn 18:11) and demanded his disciples forgive unconditionally
  • Because of the divisiveness resulting from sin “there is no historical form of justice and human community without an antecedent reconciliation and a mutual pardon. Jesus makes this principle a reality, and, in his helplessness, posits it as the basis of all society.”

I have changed the wording slightly to clarify what I think the author is saying. I find the original translation from Spanish by Raymond Barr a little stilted.
As with any academic essay, Galilea is vague on specifics – he has to be. He is looking at general theological principles, and if he only wrote about his own country it would lessen the relevance of his attempted synthesis for others.
The last bullet point of all makes me think of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – I wonder if Archbishop Desmond Tutu ever read, or met, Galilea?
I find Galilea’s 5 theses  relevant to today (2014) for Christians and Jesusites such as myself who want to find out what Jesus’s politics probably were. I haven’t yet got round to more than a superficial reading of the better-known US writers on this – Yoder, Wink or Myers. When I do, readers of Zingcreed will be the first to know about it.

There are similarities between what Jesus does and what Anarchists do, or rather don’t do.
I’m referring to the deliberate lack of concrete programmes, models and strategies for ‘after the revolution’. Trotskyists have got it all worked out down to the finest detail for when they storm their Winter Palace, but libertarians/anarchists are averse to deciding anything until the last minute and then only after consultations with all those affected. You can’t plan ahead if you’re not sure what the future will bring. So, Jesus was an anarchist? Why not?

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Liberation theology: Dead or alive?
No way Jose! (Jose Porfirio Miranda)
Red Christian documents #24: Jesus’ Revolutionary politics by Miranda
Structural sin
Red Christians #2: Camilo Torres
Red Christians #3:  Christians for Socialism Movement (Chile 1972)
Red Christians #29: Tony Benn
Jesus the subversive
The kingdom of God, a kingdom of nuisances and nobodies
Jesus’s communist brother James – his epistle
Jesus’s communist brother James – his life
Jesus’s 3 authentic biblical quotations

Sources:
(i) Galilea, Segundo “Jesus attitude toward politics; some working hypotheses” in Bonino, J.M. “Faces of Jesus. Latin American Christologies” Orbis (1977) p.97
(ii) Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre “Christian Anarchism. A political commentary on the gospel” Inprint Academic (2011)

[271: Linked & Indexed, t&c]

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